British citizens who moved to the UK before 1971 have been threatened with job loses, the discontinuation of benefits, and even deportation as the result of the government’s immigration policies.
The government have come under intense criticism this week after the Home Office sent deportation letters to members of the Windrush generation – people from the across the Caribbean who were brought to the UK to fill labour shortages after the second world war.
The passing of the 1971 immigration act meant that new migrants from other Commonwealth nations no longer had an automatic right to citizenship. Those that migrated before 1971 did have this right, but there were no official records kept of Commonwealth citizens who were already in Britain. It can, therefore, be difficult for members of the Windrush generation to officially prove their legal UK citizenship.
In 2013 the government set out to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, a policy designed to crack down on illegal immigration to the UK. Members of the Windrush generation who have been legally residing in the UK for the vast majority of their lives have found themselves caught up in this policy. Without UK passports or official citizenship documents, proving their legal right to remain in the UK has is difficult.
In a series of articles for the Guardian, Amelia Gentleman spoke to some of the individuals who came to the UK in that post-war period and have since been pressured to leave the country by the home office. Sarah O’Connor was one of these individuals. She said that “It was the way they treated me because I didn’t have a British passport. I said I’ve had no reason to go out of the country so I’ve never applied for one. They made me feel like I’m not British. I came home and cried,”
Sarah moved to Britain from Jamaica 51 years ago and has spent the last 16 of those working in a computer shop. But when she lost her position last year, she was unable to start a new job – despite several successful applications – because she didn’t have a passport.
Many others from the Windrush generation have spoken to the press about their recent run-ins with the home office including Paulette Wilson 61, who, despite having lived legally in the UK since she was 10, “was detained for a week at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre” and faced deportation.
Her daughter said that “We need an apology from the Home Office. This has broken her heart”. She was released due only to an intervention from the Refugee and Migrant Centre based in Wolverhampton
Fiona Bowen, the author of Chasing Status, a book about the older generation of UK migrants, touched upon the issues of legality surrounding the scandal. She has said of members of the Windrush generation that “They have been working, paying taxes and so it doesn’t occur to them that there is an issue with their immigration status. Often they are people who haven’t got a massive amount of income, haven’t travelled abroad and so have have never had to renew a passport.”
What can be done?
Full Fact, the “UK’s Independent factchecking charity” says that as many as 57,000 people could lose their “homes, jobs, benefits, NHS treatment, or be threatened with deportation” as a result of the ‘hostile environment” approach to immigration as they cannot prove that they live in the UK legally despite having been residents before 1971.
The Home Secretary Amber Rudd has since apologised for the situation and, through the Home Office Twitter account, has announced that a new “dedicated team” will be put in place to “help former-Commonwealth citizens who don’t have the correct UK immigration documents.”
To her own personal account, Rudd tweeted “Today I set out the how we will offer the #WindrushGeneration greater rights than they currently enjoy by enabling them to acquire British citizenship quickly, at no cost and with assistance through the process, and how we will compensate people for the hardship they’ve endured.”
She has also since written a piece for Pridemag in which she outlines the actions she is taking to ensure that the Windrush generation “get the legal status they deserve – British citizenship, quickly, at no cost and with proactive assistance”. In the article, she says that the “failure” stretch back many years and that it is the Home Office’s “responsibility to right this wrong”.
Speaking on the Financial Times politics podcast, FT political editor George Parker said of the period when Theresa May was Home Secretary that “the culture was embedded into the home office that you basically started harassing people you believed to be illegal immigrants, which may well be one way of dealing with illegal immigration but it’s certainly not the way to deal with people who were fully entitled to be in this country.”
He goes on to say of the scandal that “it’s managed to unite the whole political spectrum in absolute horror about what’s happened to this country from the Guardian right through to the Daily Mail.”